What cards made by 20th century suffragists can teach about leadership accountability in the face of climate change

Maps are a powerful tool for demonstrating inequalities. Credit: VCULibraries / Flickr, CC BY-SA 4.0

I am a geographer who has produced many maps illustrating the effects of man on the environment and have asked that we create more. A question I get asked more and more is: how can I not feel helpless in the face of such depressing data?

With climate anxiety now affecting the mental health of young people and widespread doubt about the possibility of limiting global warming to 1.5 ℃, it can be difficult to answer. What I found is that we can use a surprisingly mundane tool to communicate danger and effect positive change: the map.

Throughout history, it has generally been the elites of society who have used maps to exploit, not help, the planet and its inhabitants. They have used them to locate oil reserves, carve up continents and justify wars. But cards can also be used to empower and defend those who face seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Over a century ago, the women’s suffrage movement developed one of the largest mapping campaigns ever, spanning decades and continents, as part of its drive to empower women to vote. . We must use their principles if we are to persuade leaders not only to keep their promises, but also to improve on the promises made at the recent UN climate conference COP26.

What the suffragists did

Suffragists used cards to celebrate jurisdictions around the world that had given women the right to vote and to shame those that had not. They felt that the action of some policymakers would highlight the inaction of others, betraying the most misogynistic politicians and their supporters.

What cards made by 20th century suffragists can teach about leadership accountability in the face of climate change

Cards were at the heart of political lobbying. Credit: National Archives Catalog

The American suffrage cards with the title “Votes for Women a Success” showed which American states had granted women the right to vote. To challenge those with retrograde views, some versions of the map were also adorned with provocative statements such as “How long will the republic of the United States lag behind the monarchy of Canada?” “

In 1930s Europe, where France still refused to vote for women, suffrage campaigns published maps showing the country’s old-fashioned approach to its neighbors like Belgium, under the banner “Les Françaises Can’t not vote! French women want to vote! “

Suffrage cards were plastered on the walls, hung in the streets, displayed on sandwich boards, printed in newspapers and even used to petition the United States Congress.

Geographer Christina E. Dando pointed out that the work of American suffragists does not focus solely on creating maps, but on modifying them. For example, the map below was submitted by the Nevada Women’s Civic League to the US Judicial Committee, which refused to grant women the right to vote across the country. As the map’s catalog entry states, “This petition shows that women were not only lobbying Congress in general, but strategically lobbying committees to act.”

In the United States, the 19th Amendment guaranteeing all women the right to vote was ratified in August 1920. But the fight for equal access to the polls was far from over.

Racist voter suppression policies were enacted in many states against women of color, who themselves created maps to campaign against the horrors of lynching. It was not until the passage of the Voting Rights Act almost 50 years later, on August 6, 1965, that such policies were banned. Even today, cards remain a weapon in the continuing struggle for equitable racial representation in some American states.

What cards made by 20th century suffragists can teach about leadership accountability in the face of climate change

A high concentration of nitrogen dioxide is indicated in yellow and red. Credit: Atlas of the Invisible, author provided

Modern maps

In the past, creating cards to counter the status quo – or indeed creating just about any card – would have required a great deal of design expertise, a lot of manual effort, and the financial means to print and promote it. .

Today, these challenges can be overcome more easily. The majority of social media sites and platforms are free, do not respect national borders, and are beyond the reach of the government. This means that images that hold those in power to account can circulate more freely. So it’s time to use cards to challenge the greatest social and political crisis of our time: the destruction of our planet’s environment.

Take a look at this map of nitrogen dioxide – a gas released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels – from a hot July day across Europe in 2019 (click to enlarge). High levels can be harmful to health, create acid rain and contribute to the greenhouse effect. Although the map shows the gas in motion, it is clearly concentrated in certain areas. There is a big cloud caused by maritime transport in Marseille and spots marking industrial facilities around Düsseldorf.

Nitrogen dioxide concentration map

Rather than seeing this as an image of purely scientific interest, we should see it as a call to action. Policymakers who live under nitrogen dioxide whirlpools can design stricter legislation, such as the introduction of low emission zones, to erase the yellow markings from this map.

The battle for women’s equality is clearly not over, but the idea that at least half of the adult population should be legally deprived of the vote is now unacceptable in all but the most extreme jurisdictions. The cards created for women, by women, helped make it so. Now let’s unleash the political power of the cards to ensure that failure to act on the environment also becomes unreasonable.

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